I am deep into The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. It’s a powerful and deeply disturbing read – as you’ll find out if you tackle it yourself. But it’s not the violence practised by the tribes at war, or even the racist and morally disfiguring attitude of the “crows” (Jesuits) that strike me. The novel’s overriding theme for me was the inability of each group to realize the intentions of the other.
In alternating chapters, we hear the voices and inner thoughts of Bird (Huron) Snow Falls (Iroquois) and Crow, the Jesuit missionary they call charcoal, sent to convert the “sauvages” (his term.)
Snow Falls is the Iroquois captive of Bird. The two tribes have been bashing at each other for some time. Bird, the Huron leader, tries to understand his captive, while Snow Falls plots his destruction. Neither can perceive the inner thoughts of the other. Crow is obsessed with the souls of the Huron, and even after he learns enough of their language to preach to them, he continues to regard them as subhuman. His goal (happily achieved) is also martyrdom. His character is a construction based on accounts sent back to France by the early Jesuits in New France.
While the First Nations see the “charcoal” as helpful in trade, they never realize that what’s at stake is the priests’ basic intention to convert them – and serve as the first stage in taking control of French North America for the crown (not so godly an intention, that).
Between Jesuits and native there can be no understanding, beliefs and cultures simply cannot meet. It’s irony with a violent and tragic twist. In the end Iroquois defeat Huron, who are driven away from their farming villages, dispersed among other related tribes. For the Jesuit priests in the novel, their end is pretty grim. But we know, living outside the novel, that priests and French settlers – and the English enemy as well – will ultimately be victors. Sickened by diseases and their lands overrun, First Nations will all be worse off.It’s no accident that we’re still dealing with the irony of misapprehensions.
Fast forward, or backward in this case. While giving an interfaith workshop years ago, my husband and I discussed a number of faith words with a Christian church group. It was amazing to all of us to realize how divergent our understandings were.
Take the word “redemption.” For Jews, redemption is a community event involving all Jews: the final dawn of a messianic age. For Christians, redemption is a personal achievement after an experience of being born again. An actual person, a messiah, will bring the final apocalypse.
Now let’s bring it home. This year has seen new efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Success would seem to hinge on a set of mutual political compromises and baby steps toward that. If only it were so simple.
It was so easy to imagine a Jewish state, a glorious rebuilding of the land, when Jews were stateless and barely recovered from the Holocaust. Battles with the Palestinians, terror attacks and hostility from surrounding Arab states were part of the heroic stance of the new Israeli.
But the real problem? Jew and Palestinian each had a story encapsulated in the word “exile” that pretty much excluded the other. For the new Israel, the word “exile” meant 2,000 years of Jewish Diaspora outside the Land of Israel, followed by hard-won return. There: job’s done, and we’re never going back.
No one else can be in exile, of course.
Except for the Palestinians: to them, exile means living in a current, cruel diaspora caused by the Jews of Israel. Same word, but with such divergent meanings.
So to achieve peace isn’t to engage in a purely political settlement. It’s not just a question of bits of land, payments, who did what to whom, where lines will be drawn, or who gets Jerusalem. If it were simply that, we all know the outline of the compromise. The crux is to untangle a web of internal meanings for each community. It didn’t work for the Huron/Jesuit. Can it work for us?